"Media Is Everything. It's Everything."
Slate's 2010 profile of Andrew Breitbart.
Andrew Breitbart, conservative commentator and founder of the websites Big Government, Big Media, and Big Journalism, died unexpectedly early Thursday morning at the age of 43. As Slate's David Weigel reports," I chatted with Breitbart on Saturday, in Michigan, where he was giving a speech to an Americans for Prosperity conference, and he was as hyped-up and funny as I'd ever seen him." In 2010, Christopher Beam profiled Breitbart. The article is reprinted below.
The first time I saw Andrew Breitbart, he was publicly insulting a reporter. "Kate Zernike of the New York Times, are you in the room?" he asked the crowd. "Are you in the room?" Heads turned. Apparently not. "You're despicable," Breitbart said. "You're a despicable human being."
Zernike's offense: an item posted on a Times blog in which she said a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Breitbart was also speaking, had mocked President Obama in "racial tones" by adopting a "Chris Rock voice." Breitbart disagreed. "She's the one that correlated his voice to Chris Rock. He happens to be from Brooklyn! He's using his voice!" Laughter and applause. "This is what these creeps do," Breitbart said. "I'm sick of having cocktails with them. I'm now at war with them. No more cocktails."
Ritual denunciations of the mainstream media, as well as personal invective, are not uncommon at CPAC. (It's where Ann Coulter famously insinuated that John Edwards was gay.) Even so, Breitbart stands out. Conservative figures may rail against the media, but they rarely call out reporters by name. They rely on those reporters, after all. It's one thing to toss fans some vague media-bashing red meat. It's another to deliberately alienate individual journalists in terms usually reserved for murder trials.
In the past year Andrew Breitbart has gone from Internet famous—for years he served as Matt Drudge's second-in-command, then in 2005 he helped found the Huffington Post—to famous famous. Now, with a budding eponymous Internet empire of his own, he's using it to inflame the left, one bilious, apoplectic, vein-popping, pseudo-comedic rant at a time. The hard part is figuring out who the joke is on.
Since January 2009, Breitbart has launched three Web sites—Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism—each a conservative critique of their respective industries. Big Hollywood broke the story that got a flack for the National Endowment for the Arts tossed from the Obama administration. Big Government posted the now-famous videos that showed two young conservatives, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, entering several offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, posing as a pimp and a prostitute looking to open a brothel for underage, illegal immigrant girls.
Meanwhile, Breitbart's face and voice—a younger John Lithgow who sounds like Rush Limbaugh if he surfed—are everywhere, at least in the conservative media. He's a regular on Fox News. He has guest-hosted Dennis Miller's radio show and does frequent spots on Hannity. His sparring match with MSNBC's David Shuster in January, after O'Keefe was arrested for entering Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office under false pretenses in what the FBI claimed was a phone tampering scheme, introduced him to liberals as that guy who yells even more than Chris Matthews. His Twitter feed, meanwhile, is a dutiful liveblog of his unfiltered brain firings. "I've never met a person as depraved as Eric Boehlert," Breitbart tweeted one night at 2 a.m., referring to his vocal critic at the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America. "What a sickening variant of the human form. His mother must throw up thinking of him." Breitbart also enjoys retweeting his critics' most derisive comments. This recent message is typical: "RT @ johnandrewwalsh: RT @ andrewbreitbart I am positively DRENCHED in semen!" At any given moment, the odds that Andrew Breitbart is emitting words are roughly 9 in 10.
Breitbart is a pundit scientifically calibrated to piss off liberals. By Saturday morning, after his speech in the main hall at CPAC, Breitbart is trailing flipcams. Most of them are toted by liberal journalists looking to grill him on ACORN. Breitbart gladly submits. "Are you insane?" he asks Salon's Mike Madden. "Why don't you care about ACORN?" "Fuck. You. John. Podesta," he intones, leaning over to speak directly into a reporter's notebook as if it were a microphone. (Podesta, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, also sits on ACORN's Advisory Council.) He calls The Nation's Max Blumenthal, who criticized O'Keefe for attending a panel with a white supremacist, "the most despicable life form I've ever seen." (Watch clips here, here, here, here, and here, or the Slate V compilation below.) The videos serve as the ultimate Breitbart Rorschach test. To the left, they expose Breitbart once and for all as a blubbering, red-faced freakazoid. To the right, they're the testimony of a telegenic hero finally standing up to the liberal media.
For Breitbart, bringing down the mainstream media isn't just a crusade. It's practically a civil rights issue—only more fun. He considers himself a journalist-slash-entertainer, an Edward R. Murrow by way of the Merry Pranksters. What makes him different is that he's offensive in every sense of the word. "My entire business model is to go on offense," he said. "They don't like our aggressiveness." He knows how he's seen by the liberal establishment. "They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you."
As media criticism, it's not subtle. But then, neither is Andrew Breitbart. As a six-word corporate motto, however—a kind of elevator pitch for the whole Breitbart enterprise—it is genius. As long as his message is getting through, Breitbart doesn't care if you think he's an asshole. Assholes get attention.
"Media is everything. It's everything." It was the first night of CPAC, and Breitbart was having a heart-to-heart with O'Keefe at an after party at Morton's Steakhouse in Washington.
When O'Keefe first approached Breitbart with a handful of ACORN videos over the summer, Breitbart plotzed. But his enthusiasm didn't come from wanting to expose ACORN. "That was James and Hannah's bugaboo," he said. Breitbart wanted to expose the media. "When they came to me, I told them, 'You don't understand, you're about to prove my thesis,' " he said. He knew the mainstream media would resist covering the story, so he formulated a strategy to force them to cover it.
The idea was simple: Post the videos one at a time. Never say how many videos there are altogether. And space them out in such a way that ACORN's inevitable backtracking would be contradicted by future videos. It worked. The first video posted on Sept. 10. After the second video went up, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said that O'Keefe and Giles's ruse had failed at several other ACORN offices, including in New York. The next day, Big Government posted the New York video. It turned out the pair had not been thrown out at all. They had been instructed to, among other things, bury their sex money in a tin in their back yard.
The New York Times did cover the story. But only after Congress had already voted to rescind federal funds from ACORN. The paper's tardiness earned it a slap on the wrist from its ombudsman, Clark Hoyt. Breitbart's main beef, though, is that the Times didn't cover ACORN—it covered the coverage. The reporter, Scott Shane, treated the videos and ACORN's response as a political spat between two warring factions, rather than as an exposé of corruption that merited further digging.
Of course, it's the prerogative of the Times to decide what's published in the Times. Maybe it just didn't think the ACORN scandal was that big a deal. (Shane said as much to Hoyt.)Plus, when the publication breaking the news is itself fresh-faced and unproven, as Big Government was, the big dogs are always skeptical. Breitbart doesn't buy it. "It's one of the biggest stories ever," he says, comparing it to Watergate and Abu Ghraib. "It's a big-ass story."
Nor do ethical objections persuade him. By Times standards, the ACORN story was ill-gotten. The Times doesn't allow its reporters to misrepresent themselves. Why would it follow up on a story by a news organization that does? Breitbart dismisses this as pointy-headed Columbia Journalism School twaddle: "If Blackwater said, 'We know who raped those Iraqi girls, but we covered that up,' and somebody got an internship at Blackwater and exposed them, do you think they'd be asking whether the person got the internship under illegitimate means? … This is what journalists do. They get the story."
The best measurement of the ACORN videos' impact may be the lengths to which Breitbart's opponents have gone to discredit them. Follow the back-and-forth closely, and you'll quickly find yourself deep down a rabbit hole of charges, countercharges, and counter-countercharges over such details as whether O'Keefe went into ACORN's offices dressed as a pimp or in business casual. (Answer: business casual. But critics say the credits montage used in each video, in which he wears a fur jacket and sunglasses, intentionally misleads viewers. They also fault the normally correction-obsessed Breitbart for failing to correct news stories that misreported that O'Keefe wore the pimp costume all along.)
To Breitbart, what O'Keefe was wearing is beside the point. What matters is the behavior of the ACORN employees. Still, to placate his critics, Breitbart has offered to release the complete, unedited video footage—but only if Boehlert or Podesta agrees to watch it with him in public, followed by a Q&A. (Breitbart has already released the complete transcripts and audio.) Breitbart knows they won't take him up on the offer. But that's the point: His job is to extend the story. To drag it out as long as he can. That's why he won't just release the full videos online. "Because no one would cover it," Breitbart said. "Now the more they come after me, the bigger the story gets, the more the pressure builds. … I'm admitting it publicly: I'm fucking with you."
Put another way, he advocates fiercely for his stories. He waged a long-running war with the Washington Post, for example, over its inaccurate description of the charges against O'Keefe. (The results of his efforts can be seen at the top of this piece.) He urges other conservatives to tape their conversations with reporters, in case they get misquoted. "I will skullfuck anyone who misrepresents what I say," he said.
Journalistic objectivity isn't impossible, per Breitbart. It's just extremely rare. "I've met many journalists who impress me with their ability to play it straight," he said. "I think they're the exception to the rule." Most journalists will claim to be objective. But "out of the other side of mouth, they say they got into it because of social justice and economic equality. It's obviously a contradiction."
Is there any publication he considers objective? "Playboy," he said.
Breitbart wasn't always conservative. He wasn't even always a Breitbart. He was adopted at 3 weeks old in 1969 by Gerald and Arlene Breitbart, who raised him in Brentwood, an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father owned a restaurant, his mother was a banker—which by Brentwood standards made them working class. His sister, Tracey, a year younger, was also adopted, as were many of his friends. "Adoption was a big thing before Roe v. Wade," he said. "Trust me on that one." (Breitbart said he once bribed someone in Sacramento $500 to show him his original birth certificate. His birth father had listed his occupation as "folk singer.")
His parents raised him Jewish—his mother converted in order to marry his father—but the faith didn't take. Especially when he realized Mom and Dad weren't exactly frum. One day, he fell and chipped his tooth. "I said, 'Jesus Christ,' and my mom said, 'Don't use the Lord's name in vain.' I was like, 'I'm Jewish, Jesus is not the Lord. I was just Bar Mitzvah'ed. You were there.' " When their rabbi defended Jesse Jackson after his "Hymietown" comment, the family left the synagogue. Breitbart remembers his upbringing as otherwise apolitical. But in 1980s Los Angeles, apolitical generally meant liberal by default. More important was celebrity culture. His friends' parents would send his parents pictures of themselves in Beverly Hills society magazines. "My dad would be like, 'Why are they sending us this?' "
Breitbart didn't do well at the Brentwood School, one of the top private schools in L.A. He was friends with most everyone in his class—"My sense of humor saved me"—but did not distinguish himself in academics or extracurricular activities. His football coach, Pat Brown, said he was always screwing up the plays: "Things like not knowing the assignment. Maybe hitting someone too late. I always said there's a fine line between aggressiveness and stupidity."
One of the first articles Breitbart ever published appeared in his high-school newspaper, the Brentwood Eagle, in 1986. It was an anthropological dissection of the school's senior and junior parking lots. One had Mercedes and BMWs, the other Sciroccos and GTIs. Breitbart needed a quote to support his thesis. So he made one up—and attributed it to the new kid from South Korea, Henry Sohn. Breitbart recalls it verbatim: "Seniors are having too much of nice car than juniors." "He loved it," Breitbart says. It was an epiphany. Not only did Breitbart enjoy writing—he found he could do it in a quirky, funny, politically incorrect way.
Breitbart kept writing in college. His first piece for the Tulane Hullaballoo was a field analysis of Tulane's most notoriously debauched hookup bar, complete with annotated floor diagrams and submitted on 19 cocktail napkins. "Then I started to descend into pure weirdness," Breitbart said. His articles were stream-of-consciousness brain dumps written on deadline. One recounted a bowling date with the fictional Ambassador Johnny Autrod DeBumperspoons. "He was ambassador to Chile," Breitbart said, "but he was also ambassador to Chili's the restaurant chain, and the ambassador to the sensation of being chilly."
College was also when Breitbart began to question liberalism—or at least its judgmental, humorless coastal variant. He'd come back home to Los Angeles to find friends skeptical of the South. "I said, 'You won't believe it, these are people who are actually normal, actually funnier than us, and they're not as uptight, it's really weird. They're not snobs.' And they're like, 'You're wrong about those people, they're ignorant and they're horrible.' So I go, 'There's something wrong with this picture.' "
For four years after college, Breitbart bounced from job to job, city to city. He waited tables at Hal's Bar and Grill near Venice Beach. He wrote for an alternative music magazine, which allowed him to interview bands he loved—Crowded House, The Church, The The. He moved to Austin for a year. He coded briefly for E! Online.
He'd always wanted to write comedy (dream job: writing jokes for Chris Elliott), so he went to work for a production company. It didn't go well. Part of it was the material. One supposedly big break for him was an offer to develop Valley Girl 2. "I remember being like, 'Wait, is this not the worst fucking idea you've ever heard of?' " The other part was the crowd. "The people who come to L.A. saw Beverly Hills, 90210 or a variation on that theme, and so that's how they act there. Or they see Entourage. So you have bad actors coming to Hollywood bad-acting the part of what they think Hollywood is like. So you have really insecure people in a non-meritocracy where it's all about your relationships, who are vicious backstabbers, who don't think you should be dating somebody. It's like an orgy of people climbing over each other to stick it into the next orifice."
Breitbart first met Susie Bean at a karaoke bar in 1988. He'd heard about her from their mutual friend, Mike, who phoned Breitbart at Tulane to tell him that he'd met Breitbart's future wife. When he and Susie landed back in Los Angeles four years later, they bonded over their shared appreciation of Chris Elliott's genius. Breitbart was nearly as smitten with Susie's father, the actor Orson Bean, as he was with Susie. And vice versa. "I was very taken with him," said Bean. A former liberal who had been blacklisted as a Communist in the 1950s, Bean was also the person who introduced Breitbart to Rush Limbaugh. Breitbart spotted a copy of The Way Things Ought To Be on the coffee table. "I said, 'Did you read this for giggles?' " Breitbart said. "He said, 'Have you listened to Rush?' I said, 'Yeah, he's a Nazi or something.' He goes, 'Are you sure you've listened to him?' " When Breitbart's favorite radio station started playing grunge—which he despised—he flipped to talk radio instead. "At first it was like a foreign language to me. But over time, it started to make sense."
That was around the time of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, to which Breitbart traces his politicization. He was a liberal then. But watching Ted Kennedy and Senate Democrats accuse Thomas of sexually harassing Anita Hill broke the needle on his hypocrisy meter. "These white, privileged men knew that by taking this conservative, religious man and asking him if he rented pornography, the mere exposure of that would hurt. … I was so pissed off. You guys are just trying to ruin him. You don't have anything." The Clinton presidency further stoked his rage. "Bill Clinton comes in, and his entire M.O. is mowing down as much trim as he can. … Yet the feminists ignored Bill Clinton and they excoriated Clarence Thomas. That's everything to me."
Professionally, Breitbart struggled. "I was like, 'Please God—and I'm not religious—please God, give me something that I'm passionate about. Because I cannot do something well that I'm not passionate about.' "
In 1995, Breitbart started reading Matt Drudge's e-mail newsletter, then called, simply, Report. It wasn't a Web site yet—just a mix of Hollywood gossip, Clinton Whitewater news, and extreme weather. Breitbart was impressed enough to send Drudge a note. Drudge lived in Hollywood at the time, and they arranged a meeting. Breitbart soon started working for Drudge. He doesn't like to talk about that period, citing Drudge's desire for privacy. "He's a mysterious dude. And I grant him that mystery."
What we do know is that the Drudge Report was not a cash cow—at least not at first. (Drudge started running ads in 1999.) So while Breitbart had found his dream job, it wasn't feeding him. Breitbart eventually became known as Drudge's second-in-command—or, as he put it, "Drudge's bitch." Drudge would aggregate and post headlines in the morning; Breitbart would take the afternoon shift.
It was Drudge who introduced Breitbart to Arianna Huffington, then a conservative syndicated columnist, who hired Breitbart as her research assistant. "Arianna was my Mr. Miyagi," Breitbart said. "She turned me from a slacker into a hyperproductive person." Breitbart originally thought he'd be doing Web design for her. But it quickly became clear he would be her researcher—sometimes up to 16 hours a day. "I was like, what did I sign up for?"
In retrospect, that Breitbart discovered his two loves simultaneously—politics and the Internet—seems miraculous. So does the timing. Breitbart was able to embrace the Web only because he had drifted for so long. "All my other friends were committed, whether it be law school, medical school," he said. "I had zero to lose. So I was like, This is it. I'm doing it."
Some say the Internet is changing the way our brains work. Whatever that way is, Breitbart's ADD-addled brain was already there. "I have a very good memory. I'm also good at connecting things together. That allowed me to make outrageous cockamamie narratives. To be able to apply that to the newsworld, that was it."
Breitbart stuck with Drudge for the good part of a decade. In 1997, he and Susie got married in Orson Bean's backyard garden on the Venice canals in Los Angeles. Their first of four children, Samson, was born two years later. Breitbart took on side projects. In 2004, he co-produced a documentary about the death of Vince Foster that was slated to appear on the History Channel but never ran. That same year, he co-authored a book with the journalist Mark Ebner about the absurdity of celebrity culture, Hollywood, Interrupted. (The book is dedicated to "Benjamin Geza Affleck.")
Along the way, Breitbart eased into a new role as curator, connector, and booster of the right. Especially in Hollywood. He became a regular at the monthly gathering of L.A. writers and pundits at the Japanese restaurant Yamashiro. He befriended Ann Coulter. He would later introduce Steven Soderbergh's agent-turned-right-wing-documentarian Pat Dollard to financial backers for his film about Iraq. "I'm the Simon Cowell of the conservative movement," Breitbart said. "You've got talent, you don't."
After the 2004 election, Breitbart got a call from Huffington. She wanted to talk about starting a Web site. Breitbart no longer worked for her—he had moved to Drudge full time in 1999, and Huffington had since become a devout liberal—but they were still friends. At Huffington's request, Breitbart said, he drew up the plan that eventually became the Huffington Post. "It was basically my idea," Breitbart recalled. (Though the name, he said, came from his wife. Arianna initially wanted to call it the Huffington Report). "I was basically the architect and they were the implementers."
A Huffington Post spokesman disputed Breitbart's account: "It's odd that five years after HuffPost launched, Andrew Breitbart is now claiming he 'created the Huffington Post.' Whatever. Success has many fathers, right? Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer created the Huffington Post. Andrew helped get it up and running, as did Jonah Peretti and Roy Sekoff. It was a team effort. But Andrew didn't come up with the idea."
Breitbart was brought on full time in the months leading up to the site's launch. The plan was to have Huffington oversee the blogs—the site relied on celebrity screeds more than it does now—while Breitbart would handle the news aggregation. Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL Time Warner executive vice president who would become chairman of Huffington Post, shuttled between the news and business sides.
Breitbart said he knew that working at a liberal site would produce conflict—within himself, as much as with others. But the opportunity to do something new and influential was too tempting. "I didn't want to exist in Drudge's shadow in perpetuity," he said. "And by helping Arianna create the Huffington Post and making it a success, I felt it would allow for people to say, 'Oh, this guy kind of understands this milieu.' " The Huffington Post, meanwhile, could brag that it had stolen the secret sauce from Drudge.
Once the site launched, Breitbart lasted three weeks. "Editorial differences to the nth degree" is how he characterizes the breakup. Breitbart was nominally in charge of aggregation. But he had thought that while the opinion blogs would be mostly liberal, he could bring in some conservative voices. This turned out not to be the case. He was also asked to take a larger role in the site's day-to-day operations than he had expected.
Political tensions sometimes blended with personal ones. Lerer in particular chafed at Breitbart's style. He didn't like the headlines Breitbart wrote. The time difference between New York and Los Angeles also created conflict. Some days, 11 a.m. would roll around and the headline would be from the night before, to Lerer's dismay. "I think that the conflict was that Ken and I liked each other," Breitbart said. "I thought that I could convert Ken, and Ken thought he could convert me. And when both of us realized that wasn't going to happen, it was like, 'Oh, OK.' " As for Huffington: "Trust me, we've got one of the great awkward air-kiss relationships going."
"It was a difficult period with unpredictable results that in hindsight worked out for everyone," Breitbart said. "I'm happy Arianna has the Huffington Post." Not to be misunderstood, he added: "Let it be known that I seethe with contempt for 90 percent of what appears on that site."
Breitbart's next move, in August 2005, was Breitbart.com. The idea was quietly brilliant. Before, when news broke, the Drudge Report would link to wire stories hosted by, say, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. Those sites would thus get huge amounts of traffic for content they paid for but didn't produce. Breitbart.com simply aggregated all the wire services—Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, UPI, and others—in one place. So whenever Drudge linked to a wire story, he would link to Breitbart.com. The site has since produced a steady income. "It allows for me to have a middle-class to upper-middle-class life in Los Angeles," Breitbart said. "Probably the lifestyle of a backup catcher." (Brad Ausmus, a backup catcher for the Dodgers, made $1 million in 2009.)
Breitbart now lives in a triple-decker house on a hill in the neighborhood of Westwood, near where he grew up. He's got art on the walls—including an original Solidarity poster he found for $2,000—and a small basketball court out back. For years, the house doubled as his office. When the three Big sites were gearing up to launch in 2009, his colleagues piled into his basement. The kids would run in and out. They'd hold meetings at the dining room table.
This arrangement became too much, particularly for Susie, who had to take care of the kids in the middle of a daily political circus. (Their cat had to be relocated to Bean's house due to stress.) So Breitbart leased some office space in Santa Monica. The workplace consists of four rooms and two cubicles. "Isn't this so weird I have an office?" Breitbart says. It's the first time in 15 years.
"I have two speeds," Breitbart likes to say. "Humor and righteous indignation." It's meant to be self-deprecating. But it's also the secret to his effectiveness. When anyone dismisses Breitbart as a loon, he comes back at them with moral fury. When they threaten to pin him down in an argument, he wriggles free with a joke.
Or he simply changes the subject. Breitbart doesn't pretend to care about policy. "Have you ever seen me on TV? I always change the subject to the media context. It's my monkey trick. It's what I do." (His clash with David Shuster is a valuable case study.)
Breitbart thus occupies a weird space in the media universe. He claims no expertise. "It's like when people are like, 'What do you think we should do on health care?' I don't fucking have a clue. It's too complicated for me." (This does not prevent Breitbart from doing Fox News hits about health care.) He doesn't prognosticate, either. "I don't want to be a guy who's simply processing the best of Charles Krauthammer and Mark Steyn and coming up with my formulated hodgepodge that is a synthesis of what the experts are saying. So I defer to them."
Breitbart likes to think of himself as the big-picture guy. Sure, he can be the doofus who rubs his nipples and snorts red wine powder. But when it comes to substance, every discussion is panoramic. He talks culture as much as politics. Change the way people think, goes his argument, and you'll change the policies they support. "I'm trying to shift the focus of conservative movement from the narrow—the policy—to a much higher elevation, granting them a greater perspective." He's all about unified theory. That's why he can transition naturally from Obama ("a joyless PC freak") to ACORN to Bill Clinton to Clarence Thomas to Hollywood to political correctness to the New York Times before finally settling on why Sarah Palin should skip the presidency and just become "red-state Oprah." It's the upside of Breitbart's ADD.
Breitbart traces everything he despises about cultural liberalism to his college days. "When I told my parents I was an American studies major, they were like, 'That's fantastic! Did you read Mark Twain?' 'No, I didn't.' 'What did you read?' 'Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Michel Foucault.' 'They don't sound American!' 'They're not.' " Luckily, recalls Breitbart, "I was too drunk to be completely indoctrinated by it."
He also resents being lectured about multiculturalism, in part because of his upbringing. He's Irish-American by blood. His sister is Hispanic. Their father is Jewish. Their mother was born Midwestern Protestant. "That's why I hate this multicultural shit," Breitbart said. "You're not gonna tell me my sister and I are different because we're not blood."
The advantage of coming from the left, however, is that Breitbart knows the left, which enables him to use the left's language and tropes against it. Rachel Maddow isn't just wrong. "She believes in a poststructural model in which she's a lesbian progressive activist first and an American fifth, sixth." Maureen Dowd doesn't just make fun of Dick Cheney. She creates a "Republican other." Eric Boehlert doesn't just falsely misrepresent Breitbart's views. "He takes text and deconstructs it and then makes false accusations based upon the most ridiculous readings." I asked Breitbart whether the appropriation is intentional. "I'm saying that with a grain of irony," he said. "You gave me these tools, I'm going to use them back against you."
Meanwhile, he and O'Keefe explicitly acknowledge their debt to Chicago activist and community organizer Saul Alinsky. O'Keefe told the New York Post in September that he had been inspired by Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, particularly the lesson that "ridicule is man's most potent weapon." He said he wanted to expose the "absurdities of the enemy by employing their own rules and language." That could mean testing the limits of ACORN's willingness to help unsavory characters get loans. Or it could be as simple as pointing out that Max Blumenthal has a booger hanging from his nose.
The willingness to be ridiculous is something Breitbart has on his critics. When Media Matters finds a discrepancy in one of Breitbart's stories, it calls him out for breach of journalistic ethics. "He's a pathological liar," Boehlert says. "These people are almost incapable of telling the truth." When Breitbart finds an error, he trots out Retracto, the Correction Alpaca.
Another advantage is Breitbart's readiness to go to the mat over minutiae. Most public figures, when facing an attack on their integrity, make a mental calculation. Do I respond and dignify the attacker? Or do I let it go? Breitbart always fires back—sometimes unnecessarily. "Just because you can retweet everything about yourself and every inch of your scorched earth crusade doesn't mean you should," said Breitbart acquaintance and Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn.
A formative moment for Breitbart the pugilist was his appearance on Bill Maher last March. Among Maher, guest Michael Eric Dyson, and the audience, Breitbart was taking it from all sides. Yet at the end of the show, he felt energized. "I kind of like getting hit," he said. "The adrenaline is running. Bring it on."
In a bygone era, Breitbart's manner—the shouting matches, the nipple rubbing, the 2 a.m. tweets about his enemies' mothers—would be considered a career killer for any aspiring media mogul. Yet Breitbart's career shows no signs of collapsing. His success instead is testament to a new era in which sobermindedness is no longer a requirement for influence. "I can't fire me," Breitbart likes to say. Yet his opponents seem to think that cogent arguments will somehow drive him away. "They think they can take me down, that they can hurt me," says Breitbart. "It just makes me bigger."
Breitbart made his career piggybacking on the work of the mainstream media at the Drudge Report. Now he's one its most vocal critics. The paradox is nothing new—new media have always depended on old media as both a source and foil—but it's still a paradox. "I've said I have a dysfunctional relationship with the mainstream media," Breitbart said. "It was a dance. You're getting traffic from us. We're helping you into this transparent new media age."
Breitbart's goal is to eliminate the paradox altogether. There's a maxim that Breitbart wants to be "the Arianna Huffington of the right." Nonsense, he said. "I'd rather be the Ted Turner of the right." The analogy is one of scale as much as politics. He doesn't just want to be a parasite and critic of the mainstream media. He wants to displace it.
Breitbart's model currently combines aggregation with commentary and original reporting—a kind of right-wing Huffington Post but uglier and less comprehensive, albeit with far fewer costs. The investigative portion, according to his plan, will snowball. Big Government has posted other stories in the James O'Keefe mold. In one, a young woman films herself seeking help at an Alabama Planned Parenthood clinic while claiming to be a 14-year-old impregnated by a 35-year-old man, to see if the organization would report a statutory rape to authorities. (It didn't, and after an investigation, the clinic was put on probation.) The aggregation, meanwhile, will get more sophisticated.
Frugality is key. Breitbart says all the "Big" sites are self-sustaining, thanks in part to low overhead. They pay salaries to eight people total: one editor per site; a chief technology officer; plus Breitbart; his associate editor, Alex; and his childhood friend and business partner Larry Solov. Hannah Giles is newly on staff. Bloggers don't get paid. (O'Keefe was paid a lump sum, as opposed to a regular salary, for telling his ACORN story on Big Government.) Solov said the sites get more than 10 million unique visitors and about 40 million page views every month. Breitbart.com is still the biggest traffic magnet, with about 5 million uniques and 15 million page views per month thanks largely to Drudge links, followed by Big Government, which rates about 1.75 million uniques and 8 million page views, according to Solov. (The independent traffic analysis site Quantcast estimates that Breitbart.com attracts 3.2 million unique visitors per month. Compete puts it at 1.3 million, with BigGovernment in the hundreds of thousands.) Each new site launches when the old ones become self-sustaining, Solov said. Just last week, they paid off a $25,000 loan from Breitbart's parents that helped launch Big Government.
Other sites are in the works. Next up is Big Peace, a site dedicated to national security news. Big Education and Big Tolerance—sites dealing with liberal bias in academia and homosexuality from a conservative angle, respectively—will probably come after.
Breitbart promises more prank videos in the near future. (The next stunt targets Housing and Urban Development offices in Detroit and Chicago, as well as the Detroit Free Press, as Wired has reported.) He enjoys creating suspense, but also finds it silly. When he suggested on Greg Gutfeld's show Red Eye that he would take down the institutional left "in the next three weeks," the Twitterverse mockingly dubbed it #breitbartocalypse. "I used to say something and no one would care," Breitbart said. "Now I say something and the left freaks out."
As if he needed more platforms, Breitbart got more than $500,000 for his upcoming book, Thinking Big. Part memoir, part intellectual exposé of the "liberal matrix" from which a nation of Neos must free themselves, the book is essentially the Breitbart manifesto. "Books are so 2003," Breitbart said. "Books should only be written if you have something to say."
That doesn't seem to be a problem. A sampling from our conversations:
- "One thing I'd really like to do is in Manhattan, I'd rent a store front and we'd have a big vat of urine and put in Obama and call it Piss Obama. ..."
- "Mom: 'How's school?' 'Loving it.' 'How's that $30,000 a year going?' 'Oh man, I'm having a great time, thanks for sending me to college. It's really cheery stuff. I've read about raped black women in the South, there's women being used in [the] sex slave trade, men are really bad, and white men are even worse, and our Founding Fathers are a bunch of fucking fuckheads."
- "I don't care if Andrew Sullivan dreams of me as a bear. He could torture me and I'd allow for it."
- "You've gone to Hebrew school, you've gone to Auschwitz, you go, Never again, Never again. Then you go to Tulane and you go, Maybe never again. … Don't include that."
It all feels very freewheeling. And in many ways it is. The beauty of Andrew Breitbart is there's little standing between his overactive brain and his mouth. But over time, Breitbart's quips start to sound like talking points. I was delighted when he produced and read out loud a paragraph from the New York Times that supposedly captured the liberal world view he so despises. Then I heard him use it in a speech. It was hilarious when he punctuated his story about watching the Iran-Contra hearings with the line, "My takeaway was, 'Hey, isn't that Morgan Fairchild sitting in the front row?' " Then I saw he told the same joke to Lloyd Grove. I was interested to hear how he thought the Brentwood School administration was out to get him. Then I saw he told the same story to the Observer last year. If you created a drinking game around Andrew Breitbart and the phrases "noblesse oblige," "Democrat-media complex," "politics of personal destruction," "Frankfurt School," and "Fuck you, Eric Boehlert," you'd be wasted in minutes.
Breitbart says he didn't go into standup comedy because of the repetitiveness. "I don't think I can do it, because I don't think I can handle saying the same joke over and over," he told me. But being a pundit—even a relatively unfiltered, spontaneous, off-the-wall one—doesn't seem that different. It's a dilemma of which Breitbart is acutely aware. "I want to give you new stuff to write about," he told me more than once. But the quest for new material is itself exhausting. "Listening to myself answer questions about myself, I want to throw up," he said. "I'm like, enough already. I'm so fucking sick of me as a subject."
Occasionally, however, the performance stops. On Friday, the second day of CPAC, Breitbart got a phone call. Michael Walsh, the editor of Big Journalism, was in the hospital: a heart attack. The doctors had inserted a stent to keep the artery from clogging.
We were sitting at a small table in the hotel deli. "You wanna meet downer Andrew?" he said. He was picking at a fruit salad. Every few minutes, a piece of cantaloupe would slide down his fork and fall off. He would reskewer it until it fell off again. "It's a fundamental flaw in my psyche. I don't do well with death." Breitbart's father, now in failing health himself, once tried to explain death to him. It was 1979, Breitbart was 10, and the Yankees catcher Thurman Munson had just died. "I asked my dad what happened. He said he died. I didn't understand, but he didn't have a way to explain the finality." Later, he said, he remembers being crushed by the death of his dogs. When Breitbart was 24, his best friend was killed in a robbery. Breitbart never really dealt with it. "I think I've created a horrific buttress of protections because I was so devastated by the permanence of death as a child," he said later. "My ability to be emotive and cry … I think I'm so fearful of tapping that that I won't know how to turn it off."
"In D.C. I'm kind of Holly Golightly, not paying attention to the real world," he said. "This kind of sucked me back in."
CPAC had so far been a blur of handshakes, praise, promises of future collaboration. Breitbart said he found it flattering but also absurd. He still dreams, he said, of living in "a post-political world. I would love to have, like, a Thoreau sort of place. All I want is my mind to be removed of all this. It's nonstop. Just for two weeks at a time maybe." If there's anyone to blame, of course, it's Breitbart, who he helped create this hyperintense media world that he finds so exhausting.
Breitbart doesn't allow himself much time for reverie. Minutes later, he was back on his feet, signing programs and posing for photos. He had promised to introduce Giles at a youth event hosted by Stephen Baldwin. He used the spare moments before going onstage to sermonize into the camera of yet another liberal blogger. After the interview, the blogger turned his camera off and extended his hand to Breitbart. "What I will tell you is, I wish that I had your talent," he said. "Because somehow you rose from—what—nowhere, and you've got a very big voice right now. So to that extent, you're a kind of aspiration for me." Breitbart grinned, adding: "Emphasis on the ass!"
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.